Eclectic programming, as we can expect at the Wigmore Hall. Andreas Scholl and Tamar Halperin performed a very unusual selection showing the close connection between popular song and art song. Snobs who sneer at crossover don't know music history. Scholl, being a countertenor has long enjoyed exploring early song, created long before the dividing lines between classical and pop were even defined. Read Oswald von Wolkenstein, King of the Road, for example where Scholl sings the songs of a 14th century singer/songwriter who travelled across Europe in the company of soldiers, troubadours and other adventurers, a prototype perhaps of the Jacques Brels and Bob Dylans of our time.
Scholl set the mood with a song by Joseph Kilna Mackenzie, a hit on the modern folk circuit, and featured in a movie. It's a Highland lament, but utterly original. Sergeant Mackenzie was a real person, who died heroically in the First World War, and a relative of the composer The song thus connects to oral tradition although it's thoroughly through composed. The voice intones with grave dignity, while a drone wails around it, suggesting bagpipes or some even more primeval instruments. Scholl's voice ranges from tenor to near falsetto: no fixed notions about fach, here, just pure and very personal music. Then on to Randy Newman In Germany Before the War, a far less effective song, and Chava Alberstein (born 1947) Ikh shtey unter a Bokserboym, a modern Israeli version of a Yiddish folk song. All three songs connect thematically, the artists responding to the troubled times of our era. Perhaps pop reaches audience who need the message most.
Back to Scholl's "home territory" with a transcription of Machaut (Douce Dame Jolie) and three songs by Benjamin Britten based on traditional airs, like Greensleeves, Down by the Salley Gardens and The Ash Grove. Nobody quite sings these as evocatively as Scholl, whose agile voice gives them a magical elusiveness that seems almost not of this mundane world. Maybe folk song should be gruff and rough, but Scholl shows how magical and artistic they can be.
Folk song traditions were created by women, as much as by men. Thus Sasha Argov: Shir Éress - "Lullaby", another "modern Israeli folk song. The timbre is so high that it suits Scholl's voice perfectly, Tamar Halperin played Debussy: Jimbo's Lullaby from Children's Corner and Janacek: Our Evenings from On an Overgrown Path with great sensitivity., and two of her own transcriptions of traditional melodies, black is the colour of my true love's hair and I gave my love an apple, enhanced by Scholl;'s plaintive, plangent singing.
The Lochamer Liederbuch of 1460 is the earliest published collection of early German song. It connects not only to popular folk song but also to Minnesang, the artistic lyrical song tradition that pre-dates "classical" song and Lieder. Scholl and Halperin ended with settings from Brahms Volkslieder collections, Darunter in Tal, All mein' Gedanken and In stiller Nacht. Long before most other composers, and British composers in particular, Brahms revived the simple humanity of folk music in a thoroughly "modern", distinctive way of his own. To emphasize the point, Scholl and Halperin then did a new version of In Stiller Nacht. Tradition lives on, ancient heritage inspires a brave new future.